While I’ve long been a hip-hop fan I’ve never really been the biggest fan of the “conscious” hip-hop that has long been touted as the “smart” alternative to all the “commercialized sellout” hip-hop that most people actually want to listen to. I certainly don’t need or want my rap music to be ignorant, and I’m not talking about artists like Tupac or Kendrick Lamar who mix politics into traditional hardcore rap, but I’ve always found it a bit suspect how certain “fans” seem to want this particular genre of music to act more as a billboard for various social or political causes and the further away from college the less use I have for a lot of these guys. That’s not to say I eschew every group that falls under the “conscious” banner; The Roots are obviously awesome and Talib Kweli’s best stuff mostly works for me. But I have little use for the lecturing of Immortal Technique, Common’s music mostly seemed like a series of empty platitudes, and even the granddaddy of all these artists, KRS-One, could be rather tiresome. And this brings me to The Coup. I’ve never had terribly strong opinion about that group as they basically just seemed like one of many artists vying for attention in that space but they were distinct from some other “conscious rappers” in that they were even more left-wing than a lot of them. They’re like the Rage Against the Machine of hip-hop and their members are committed socialists with distinctly anti-capitalist views and seem to be genuinely interested in burning everything to the ground and starting over. I bring all this up because The Coup’s founding member is a guy named Boots Riley and he has now decided to move into filmmaking with his debut film Sorry to Bother You.
Sorry to Bother You follows a guy named Cashus “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who lives with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in a makeshift apartment in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage in Oakland. In an attempt to get his life back on track Green takes a job at a telemarketing call center called Regalview where he’s told to “stick to the script” while selling encyclopedias (or something) over the phone to people who aren’t terribly receptive. Cash struggles for a while before an older co-worker named Langston (Danny Glover) advises him that he’d have more success if he used his “white voice” instead of his natural cadence. From there Cash starts code switching while talking on the phone to customers (Stanfield is overdubbed in these moments by comedian David Cross) and almost immediately starts to become very successful and gets promoted up the corporate ladder. That would seemingly be good news for Cash but it puts him at odds with some of his old friends who are tying to start a union in the lower levels of the company and with the world at large given that the film is set in a satirically heightened version of our world where a billionaire named Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) has been convincing people to sign lifelong contracts with a company called WorryFree that basically turns them into slaves.
If that summery didn’t make it clear, Sorry to Bother You is a really weird movie, though it’s not entirely without precedent. The movie certainly seems to be in the same tradition as some of Spike Lee’s more “out there” movies like She Hate Me, Girl 6, and especially Bamboozled, which was also about a black guy who could be accused of being an “uncle tom” trying to decide how deep down the road of collaborating with racist corporations he wants to go. However the film also seems to draw a bit from other culty movies like Repo Man and Putney Swope which choose to eschew subtlety and kind of shout their frustrations about the status quo in unusual and sort of surreal ways. The film is being sold on the high concept of the salesman using his “white voice” to get ahead in telemarketing, and while the double consciousness of black Americans is a theme of the movie that concept is really more of a jumping off point than the dominant message of the movie. Over the course of the film’s running time capitalism itself is just as much of a target as racism and increasingly takes the movie over by the end.
Much of Sorry to Bother You attacks American capitalism though a sort of satiric exaggeration. For instance there’s the “WorryFree” organization that is essentially peddling slavery with congressional approval and there’s an even more outlandish allegory about worker exploitation that emerges later in the movie. That would seem to be a powerful statement if you’re someone who’s so inclined to view the capitalist system as already essentially being legitimized slavery, but if you don’t already hold that view (I certainly don’t) the movie isn’t necessarily going to persuade you to see things that way and the allegory will just seem like some outlandish hyperbole. In fact the movie delivers a lot of messages through outlandish hyperbole, it kind of feels like the sort of movie someone makes when they have a lot to say but don’t know if they’re ever going to have the chance to make another movie so they just throw everything into one project. It wasn’t enough to make a movie about a guy who abandons his culture and sense of self for profit and it also wasn’t enough to make a movie about the ways capitalism pits poor people against each other and it also wasn’t enough to make a movie that takes digs at reality television, meme culture, and the modern art world, he needed to make a movie that comments on seemingly everything that’s came to mind about American culture and the result is a movie that is densely filled with slightly half-baked ideas. I desperately want to give this thing an “at least it’s trying something different” pass, but at the end of the day it’s a little too messy and unfocused and also probably not as laugh out loud funny as it needed to be.
**1/2 out of Five
Sometimes you hear an anecdote in an interview and you forget about it and sometimes it just stays with you. One such anecdote occurred in a Hot 97 interview with Aziz Ansari where Ansari recounts a time he was hanging out with Jay-Z and for whatever reason brought up the movie E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial only to have the rapper snap back “I don’t fuck with E.T… but you know what’s dope, Johnny Five from Short Circuit.” Ansari (who will come up again later in this review) and the hosts riff on this peculiar movie opinion but the comic recounts how Hov’s eyes lit up when he brought up the Short Circuit movies. The artist formerly known as Jigga does not seem to be alone in his enthusiasm for Short Circuit, it seems to be one of the pre-eminent “nostalgia movies” despite having gotten mixed to negative reviews when it first came out and being only a very modest box office success and it clearly inspired aspects of later blockbusters like Wall-E and non-blockbusters like Chappie. Also, while I would say that I disagree with Mr. Carter’s assessment that the movie is better than E.T. he is on to something when he compares the movies directly as Short Circuit is almost certainly inspired by the box office success of Spielberg’s film. Both films feature a cute version of a science fiction mainstay on the run from shady government entities and being taken in by an ordinary person who befriends them and tries to protect them.
At the heart of Short Circuit there is a potentially interesting science fiction idea buried in it but it’s stuck in the middle of a movie with very lame ambitions. There could be a good movie about a robot gaining sentience and slowly becoming more aware of the world by observing “input” item by item, but that’s really not where this movie’s interests lie. Instead its main goal seems to be turning Johnny Five into the goofiest and cuddly robot they can. He’s given a rather annoying voice by a guy named Tim Blaney, whose background is in puppetry and you can kind of tell because this sounds more like the kind of voice you come up with a give a ventriloquist dummy or something rather than a real character. The human cast is not much better. I’m not sure who made Steve Gutenberg a star but they need to be stopped and Ally Sheedy stopped being cast in movies people care about after 1989 for a reason, but even better actors probably wouldn’t have been able to do much with these rather stock characters. Then of course there’s the character of Ben Jabituya (whose renamed Ben Jahveri in the sequel for some reason), an Indian character with a rather Apu like accent played by the decidedly non-Asian actor Fisher Stevens. This character was highlighted by Aziz Ansari in the “Master of None” episode called “Indians on TV” and has plainly not aged well. Even setting aside the problematic nature of this casting the character is just annoying and obnoxious.
I also took a look at the film’s sequel, Short Circuit 2. I had expected it to be much lamer than the original, and in some ways it certainly was. Ally Sheedy and Steve Gutenberg are easy actors to make fun of but you do start to miss them when they leave the series and the white guy playing an Indian becomes the lead. The sequel also basically gives up any pretention of being the next E.T. and settles for being the next Harry and the Hendersons, but there are some improvements too. New York proves to be a more interesting setting for Johnny Five’s hijinks than whatever rural area the first movie was set in and the movie also oddly doubles down on the idea of Johnny Five as something of an oppressed minority. It’s a slightly hypocritical stance given the film’s brownface lead and it’s less than authentic take on Latin street gangs, but it is there nonetheless. Beyond that there are also a couple of gags in the film that work better than they probably should. Ultimately I’m not sure I like or dislike the sequel more than the original or vice versa. One feels like a good movie turned lame and the other feels like a lame movie made better than it might have otherwise and the two just sort of meet in the middle, but really all they have in common is that they’re cheaply made movies made for cynical reasons.
To the Scorecard:
Officially I’m just counting the original film as my entry for this round but whichever way I went on that the result would have basically been the same as I was not overly impressed by either movie. There are 80s movies out there that I don’t like but get why they’re remembered nostalgically but this is not one of them. Anyone who watches this thing over the age of 11 should be able to tell it’s second rate. Also, Jay-Z, stick to rapping because your opinion about family movies from the 80s is lacking.
2014 was not a good year for Marvel. That was the year that Avengers: Age of Ultron came out and proved to be a rather unruly mess, and that was followed by a strange little movie called Ant-Man. Ant-Man is to date the third lowest grossing Marvel film after The Incredible Hulk and the first Captain America and to those in the know the final film kind of lived in the shadow of the fact that Edgar Wright was once going to direct it. I wasn’t a fan of that movie either. Of course it was a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie so there was enough quality control going on that it certainly wasn’t “bad,” but there were a lot of elements that didn’t really work and it just seemed like kind of a lame exercise in the grand scheme of things. I was especially put off by one aspect of Ant-Man’s powers, namely the way he could punch people while miniature and have them react as if they’d just been given an uppercut by a heavyweight fighter. That doesn’t make sense. Even if they did have incredible strength while miniature the fact that it’s channeled into a small space like that would make Ant-Man piece into the bad guys like a bullet not hit them with blunt force trauma. It breaks the laws of physics dammit! Still, in 2018 Marvel is on a roll and I suspected that they had enough momentum to improve on their last effort with the sequel Ant-Man and The Wasp.
The film is set two years after the events of Captain America: Civil War but before the events of Avengers: Infinity War. After having been arrested for breaking the Sokovia Accords in Captain America: Civil War Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has been on house arrest this whole time. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) have apparently also been on the run this whole time because it was their technology that was used in Scott’s breach. At the film’s start his sentence is only days away from being over but for some reason he suddenly finds himself having a strange dream about Hank and Hope and in a semi-delirious state calls them using a burner phone that he had hidden and tells them about it. Something like a day later he’s suddenly tranquilized and moved to a secret lab that Hank and Hope have been building where they hope to enter sub-atomic space to rescue Hank’s lost wife. But not long after they all find themselves in a run-in with a mobster named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) and then they’re accosted by a strange masked combatant that seems to phase in and out of reality and it becomes clear that they’re going to be in the fight of their life.
The title of Ant-Man and The Wasp gives equal billing to Hope but don’t be fooled, this is still very much a story told from the perspective of Ant-Man, which is perhaps to be expected given that he’s more of an audience surrogate than Hope. Hope is given a costume this time around and gets to participate in the action sequences as The Wasp but narratively she more or less shares her storyline with her father, who could just as easily be considered a co-star with the other two. That aside the movie generally has a clearer picture of its characters than the original film did and the fact that it has its origin story stuff out of the way gives it a lot more time to act as something of a romp. Most of the comic relief cast from the previous movie like Michael Peña and T.I. are back and Randal Park has been added as a delightfully nerdy FBI Agent who’s meant to be overseeing Scott’s house arrest and just steals every scene he’s in. People who are frustrated by the fact that so many superhero movies tend to end with fights against super-villains that are about to set loose some world ending calamity will likely enjoy the fact that this movie involves a fight against some rather low level thugs led by Walton Goggins (who’s very much in “Vice Principals” mode here) and even the more traditional superhero foil called Ghost proves to be less eeeevilll than most Marvel villains.
In general Ant-Man and The Wasp is a clear improvement over its predecessor, it seems to have a bigger budget, it more clearly knows what it wants to be, and its cast has gelled considerably. That said I still think this is one of Marvel’s weaker franchises, some people might like the film’s lighter tone, but I think Marvel movies are already plenty light to begin with and the Ant-Man movies bring that lightness to the point of feeling downright disposable. This one in particular seems to really think that its tone can excuse away some pretty obvious plot-holes like the FBI’s incredible inability to keep tabs on Scotts home. This all feels particularly inconsequential given the ending of Avengers: Infinity War, which only really comes up here during Marvel’s patented post-credits sequence, but the film otherwise does not feel terribly important to the greater MCU storyline. The decision to release this a mere two months after Infinity War seems particularly curious given that there are no Marvel movies lined up at all for the fall and I’m guessing that there would have been a much bigger shortage of escapist entertainment like this during that season. Having said all that, I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that this isn’t worth seeing because it probably is at least if you’re an MCU fan. These movies are basically never bad and this one isn’t either. It’s a neat action movie and most audience members will get what they came for.
***1/2 out of Five
Usually for me a decision to go to the movies is something planned weeks in advance. I keep an eye on release schedules for the big movies, I monitor festival buzz for the small movies, and I generally know what’s coming and when. Every once in a while though I can be surprised a little by something, which is what happened with the film Leave No Trace. I never saw a trailer for the movie and while I can see now that it did play at Sundance I don’t remember hearing a whole lot about it at the time, possibly because the title and basic concept don’t stand out a whole lot. So the film was completely off my radar when I suddenly saw that it would be playing at my local limited release theater and when I googled it two things stood out to me: 1. It was directed by Debra Granick, who had a big breakout with 2010’s Winter’s Bone before sort of disappearing afterwards, and 2. that the movie had a 100% rating on Rottentomatoes. Now I know a lot of people don’t think terribly highly of Rottentomatoes and a movie certainly shouldn’t be judged in its totality by having a good or bad score on it, but any way you cut it managing to get 120 film critics to agree on something has to mean something.
The film is by and large the story of a father and a daughter. The father is a man named Will (Ben Foster) a veteran who suffers in some way from PTSD and whose wife appears to have died at some unclear time in the past for reasons that are never explained. As the film starts Will does not own a conventional home and has opted to live at an illegal campsite in a national park in New York with his teenage daughter Tom (presumably short for “Thomasin” a name she share with the actress who plays her, Thomasin McKenzie). The two have managed to survive a long time more or less off the grid and Will seems to have pretty effectively home schooled Tom along the way. However this way of life comes under threat when someone spots Tom and the next day police arrive with dogs to locate the two of them. The next thing you know Will and Tom are forced to justify themselves to Child Protective Services and fight to stay together.
“Family that shuns a conventional lifestyle and lives in the woods” has become something of a sub-genre as of late. I’m sure there are even earlier precursors but I first remember a story like this coming to cinema screens with the 2007 documentary Surfwise, about a family that raised their kids in an RV that toured various beaches. I believe there was another film along these lines called The Glass Castle but the film that probably told a story like this with the most commercial success lately was a film called Captain Fantastic with Viggo Mortenson as a widower father who has to defend his rights to raise his kids in the woods and homeschool them rather than enroll them in school or give them normal shelter. In terms of high concept the similarities between Leave No Trace and Captain Fantastic are pretty clear but the movies actually have pretty different tones. I think Captain Fantastic was technically an independent movie but it didn’t really feel like one. It occasionally examined the negative effects of raising kids like this but it also wants people to see the family as kind of cute and let its audience decide the morality of it all.
Leave No Trace is perhaps a more realistic look at what a life like this would look like and almost has the opposite problem of not really explaining why anyone would find this kind of life so appealing. Captain Fantastic was pretty upfront about that family’s motivations: the parents were hippies who had political qualms with modern life and was more than happy to expound on this at length. Here the father’s motivations are left a bit more unspoken. I wouldn’t call Will entirely apolitical but he certainly doesn’t seem like someone who’s inclined to have the family celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday. Instead the implication here seems to be that Will’s inability to live in a house with running water seems to be a function of his PTSD. One imagines a backstory where he came back from the war, stares at a cereal aisle like Jeremy Renner’s character from The Hurt Locker, but unlike him can’t re-enlist because he’s got a daughter who would be more or less orphaned if he did. Tom by contrast mostly seems to be completely on board with this life but it’s not clear at first if that’s because she truly loves the outdoors or if it’s because she loves her father and doesn’t know what she’s missing from society.
As I mentioned before this is Debra Granick’s first film in eight years since directing the Oscar nominated Winter’s Bone, a film that perhaps unfairly became better known for introducing audiences to Jennifer Lawrence than it did for its direction. Personally, I liked Winter’s Bone but I did think some of the hype around it was a bit overblown. It certainly had an interesting setting but it often felt like it didn’t have much going for it beyond its anthropological observations about Middle America. This new film has its Hell or High Water moments where it stops to make comments about rural America in decline but it doesn’t feel like the movie is merely a pretext to witness these communities and really does keep the focus on the characters for the most part. That’s probably the right choice but I still don’t necessarily think this is a story for the ages or characters that will live on with me too long after I’m done watching the film even though they’re very well written and acted. It lacks the veneer of genre that probably helped Winter’s Bone gain a wider audience so I don’t know that this is going to be as much of a breakout even though I largely consider it a better movie.
***1/2 out of Five
The always sarcastic marquee at my local arthouse showing the new Spanish film Summer, 1993 had a special comment on one side which reads “Not about ‘Exile in Guyville’” in reference to the 1993 Liz Phair album of that name and on the other side it reads “I was listening to ‘Siamese Dream’ a lot that that summer” in reference to the Smashing Punpkins album of that name. That joke marquee isn’t really referencing anything in the movie itself (which is entirely disinterested in popular music) but more about that strange way that references to the summers of various years almost always conjures up certain nostalgic images whether or not your own experiences had much of anything in common with the popular perception. Case in point Bryan Adams managed to sing very plausibly about his magical coming of age experiences in the “Summer of ‘69” despite the fact that simple google searches reveal that he was actually only ten years old that year so he probably didn’t actually buy his first real six-string at the five and dime and play it until his fingers bled that year. The year 1993 is of course no exception, when I saw the title of the movie I was also instantly thinking about grunge music and Michael Jordan even though I was six years old that years old that year and was probably spending a lot more time listening to the “Little Mermaid” soundtrack than I was listening to “Vs.” Of course that would theoretically prove to be a bit of a boon when it comes to looking at Summer, 1993 the movie as it eschews the notion that the “summer of” construct is owned by teenagers as it is also a movie about people who were six or so in 1993.
Summer, 1993 begins with a woman named Marga (Bruna Cusí) and her husband Esteve (David Verdaguer) adopting their niece Frida (Laia Artigas) and moving her from Barcelona to their home somewhere in rural Catalonia after Frida’s mother dies and hope to raise her alongside their own slightly younger daughter Anna (Paula Robles). That is pretty much the entirety of the plot summery for this movie as it is very much a movie about observing people rather than really relaying a plotline. There is a subtext to be discovered in that it becomes clear that it was three letters that took Frida’s mother to her final resting place, which is probably the main reason this is set in 1993, but this only really comes up in something like four or five scenes and the movie doesn’t really come out and explain it explicitly until a very well rendered conversation in its final moments. Instead the movie remains largely in the little girl’s point of view and continues to follow her through her many mundane days across that summer mostly oblivious to the social and political situation that her mother’s death represents instead observes her as she’s going through typical kid stuff as she slowly adjusts to her new life.
Summer 1993 is a tricky one because I get what it’s trying to do and when I step back far enough I can admire that, but the process of actually watching it was a bit rough. I hate to use the B-word about an art movie but if I’m being honest there was only so much of watching these kids do a whole lot of nothing particularly special without finding it all a bit dull. This has been something of a quirk in my taste, a lot of filmmakers seem very interested in letting their cameras observe kids being kids but it’s something that doesn’t really work for me except for a couple of very specific situations where it works very well. Last year’s The Florida Project for instance, worked like gangbusters for me but that looked at a childhood that was very unique and really examined how that kid’s messy family life affected her in a way that this movie intentionally avoids and other movies like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood tends to move more quickly from year to year rather than focusing in on one rather mundane summer. This one actually reminded me more of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, but not the interesting parts of it like the dawn of life sequence or the magnificent camera work or ethereal nature that made it interesting, more like an extended version of the somewhat dull sequences of kids playing that sort of made that movie not entirely work for me. And if watching kids play aimlessly is going to make a Terrence Malick movie dull you can probably guess this one didn’t really stand a chance. Still, I don’t want to be too dismissive of it as it does in theory at least do a pretty good job of showing with subtlety a major adjustment in this family’s life, shame it also had to be so boring.
** out of Five